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  • Rick

China #17: Lost Paradise of Shangri-La's Dukezong Ancient City (香格里拉独克宗古城)

Updated: Jul 6, 2020

Sights: Dukezong Ancient City (独克宗古城)

Region: Shangri-La County, Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan


Previous story:

Story #16: Three Ancient Towns of Lijiang (丽江三古镇)

And I was finally in utopia — Shangri-La!

My first stop in Shangri-La was Dukezong Ancient City. Dukezong, meaning "Moonlight City (日光城)" in Tibetan language, has a history of 1,300 years and has the largest Tibetan population. It was also an important stop along the Ancient Tea-Horse Trail (茶马古道) which connected Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou to Tibet. It was the best-preserved ancient city in China — until 2014.

This post is titled the "lost paradise" because up to 70% of the ancient city was burnt down in a huge fire in January 2014 — the photos shown here were taken in December 2012, about a year before the fire. The current city was reconstructed and reopened in 2016 but it has lost most of its rusticity and originality.

Nevertheless, the ancient city is still an important part of Shangri-La.

Getting from Lijiang to Shangri-La

Together with Xiaohan, a Zhuang-minority girl from Guangxi whom I got to know in Dali Shuanglang Town (大理双廊), we hitch-hiked from Shuhe Ancient Town to Shangri-La.

This was my first time trying this means of getting from one place to another by "begging" drivers. And it was not easy as most drivers preferred to pick up girls — which is also something dangerous for lone-travelling girls.

Xiaohan did most of the thumbing (the sign for hitch-hiking) and asking while I stood a little back from the road, only to step out after she successfully hitch-hiked a car. It was not that I was being unhelpful but most drivers would not stop for guys — which we realised after an hour of thumbing.

Frankly, I don't encourage girls to hitch-hike alone. In 2012, Shangri-La was flooded with news of a lone Chinese girl who went missing after hitch-hiking in the mountainous region, she was never seen again. Despite the danger, I met more young female Chinese travellers who were so eager to hitch-hike just to save on transport costs.

Another disadvantage of hitch-hiking was the long time spent on thumbing for a car to take us — it can take hours. By the time we reached Shangri-La, night had already fallen. The driver dropped us outside a youth hostel and we checked in without knowing exactly where we were in Shangri-La.

Fortunately, the hostel was located at the edge of Dukezong Ancient City.

Where I Stayed

I can't remember the name of the youth hostel. And I am not sure if it is still around today, especially after the great fire.

We stayed for 2 nights in the ancient city before moving to Shangri-La Lao Shay Youth Hostel in the grassland, a short distance outside the ancient city, to try staying in the grassland and experience a different lifestyle in Shangri-La.

Dukezong Ancient City in 2012

These photos are fond memories of the once best-preserved ancient city of China. Check out the ancient streets. (I have not been back to the city since 2012, so I do not know how much different it is now.)

The commercial zone would be where all tourists would go, obviously. Despite being a business zone, it was not very touristy and crowded as Lijiang and Dali — probably because it was already winter.

The well-preserved Tibetan architectures were evident throughout the ancient city and also the zigzagging paths that showed its originality. In Chinese, we call it "古色古香" or "having a rustic atmosphere". It was much more authentic here than the ancient cities of Lijiang and Dali.

One of the white Tibetan pagoda with colourful prayer flags in the ancient city.

We also explored the residential zone where more cafes and lodgings can be found. There were museums in here too, especially the Shangri-La Ancient Tea-Horse Trail Museum (香格里拉茶马古道博物馆). But most travellers and tourists tend to stay in the commercial zone unless guided by tour guides here.

I thought this was a young cow but a passerby said it was a young yak. However, there was no adult yak in sight in the city so I still say this is a cow.

And we were at the back of Guishan Park (龟山公园). This was a splendid view with Guishan Temple (龟山寺) sitting on a small hill above the ancient city.

We skirted around the hill to the main entrance of Guishan Park, which faced Yueguang Plaza (月光广场, meaning "moonlight square").

There was a Han-Tibetan architecture facing the plaza as well, called Zhongxinzhen Hall (中心镇公堂,又称藏经堂), a depository for Tibe